NYPD infiltrated Muslim student groups for intel

People walk on the campus of Brooklyn College in the Brooklyn borough of New York Oct. 7, 2011. AP Photo

NEW YORK - With its whitewashed bell tower, groomed lawns and Georgian-style buildings, Brooklyn College looks like a slice of Colonial Virginia dropped into modern-day New York City. But for years New York police have feared this bucolic setting might hide a sinister secret: the beginnings of a Muslim terrorist cell.

Investigators have been infiltrating Muslim student groups at Brooklyn College and other schools in the city, monitoring their Internet activity and placing undercover agents in their ranks, police documents obtained by The Associated Press show. Legal experts say the operation may have broken a 19-year-old pact with the colleges and violated U.S. privacy laws, jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal research money and student aid.

The infiltration was part of a secret NYPD intelligence-gathering effort that put entire Muslim communities under scrutiny. Police photographed restaurants and grocery stores that cater to Muslims and built databases showing where people shopped, got their hair cut and prayed. The AP reported on the secret campaign in a series of stories beginning in August.

NYPD spied on Muslim anti-terror partners
More cases of NYPD ethnic spying exposed
NYPD confirms CIA officer works at department

The majority of Islamic terrorism cases involve young men, and infiltrating student groups gave police access to that demographic. Alarmed professors and students, however, say it smacks of the FBI spying conducted on college campuses in the 1960s. They are calling on college administrators to investigate.

"It's really about personal freedom," said Moustafa Bayoumi, an English professor at Brooklyn College. "The government, through the police department, is working privately to destroy the private lives of Muslim citizens."

Last week, professors at the City University of New York's Law School issued a statement warning that the spying at CUNY campuses may have violated civil rights laws. The Brooklyn College Faculty Council has passed a similar measure.

Outside a prayer room used by their club on the edge of the Brooklyn College campus, members of the college's Islamic Society worried they might be marked for life — flagged on a terrorism watch list or blacklisted in a police dossier — because of the surveillance.

"We come to the room, we talk, we chill," said Shirin Akter, 20, an elementary education major. "So if another sister comes into the room and she's a cop, that's not cool. I'm really scared about this."

Following revelations about widespread spying, the New York City Council demanded answers Thursday from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who defended the department he has transformed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said police only follow leads and do not single out groups based on religion.

(Watch at left a segment from CBS' "60 Minutes" last month during which Kelly provided a behind-the-scenes look into the nation's most sophisticated counter-terrorism squad in America's largest city.)

Fighting terrorism in New York City
Video: Ray Kelly's rise to the top
NYC police chief: We can shoot down airplanes

"The value we place on privacy rights and other constitutional protections is part of what motivates the work of counterterrorism," he said. "It would be counterproductive in the extreme if we violated those freedoms in the course of our work to defend New York."

The NYPD's intelligence division first turned its attention to colleges after receiving sketchy information that a student wanted to be a "martyr," according to a law enforcement official familiar with the program who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the program. But police never found this person and did not bring cases charging Muslim student groups with training terrorists, the official said.

In their surveillance, undercover officers from the department's Special Services Unit attended events organized by Muslim students, the official said, as did members of the NYPD's Demographics Unit, a secret squad that used plainclothes officers of Arab descent to monitor neighborhoods and events.

The NYPD's Cyber Intelligence Unit used speakers of Arabic, Persian and other languages to monitor the websites of Muslim student organizations. They trolled chat rooms and talked to students online, the official said.

By 2006, police had identified 31 Muslim student associations and labeled seven of them "MSAs of concern," the documents show.

Six were at branches of the City University of New York: Brooklyn College, Baruch College, City College, Hunter College, La Guardia Community College and Queens College. The other was at St. John's University, a Catholic college in the borough of Queens.

Members of the Brooklyn College Islamic Society said their association is typical of the groups.

The club occupies two prayer rooms, one for men and one for women, off a student lounge on the western edge of campus. The American Medical Students Association is next door; the Veteran Students Organization is at the end of the lounge.

On a recent afternoon, society members made their way past students playing board games in the lounge. Hip-hop music by Flo Rida and T-Pain blared from the office of another student club.

The Muslim students entered the prayer room for men, knelt on a patch of carpet and recited quietly, occasionally touching their heads to the floor in unison.

A bumper sticker on the door of the women's room read: "Discover Jesus in the Quran." A table held tracts with titles like "Women's Dress in Islam" and "Samples from the Illustrious Qur'an." A bulletin board offered free Arabic classes.

Comments